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Check out former Illinois Teachers of the Year Susan Converse, Lindsey Jensen and Joe Fatheree as they discuss the impact the Teacher of the Year program has had on them!​​​​ ​​

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those who excel logoSince 1970, the Illinois State Board of Education has sponsored the Illinois Teacher of the Year program, recognizing the best of the teaching profession in Illinois. All public and nonpublic preK-12 educators in Illinois with more than five years of teaching experience are eligible. The top nominees from eight regions are designated as Regional Teachers of the Year; the Illinois Teacher of the Year is selected from that cohort. We also recognize Bilingual, Early Childhood, and Special Education Teachers of the Year. The Outstanding Early Career Educator award is presented to the top teacher in Illinois with one-four years of teaching experience.​​​​​​ Remaining nominees are awarded on two levels: Meritorious Service and Special Recognition.​

Nomination Window – Reopens Spring 2021

 2020 Illinois Teacher of the Year

​When he was in sixth grade, Eric Combs’ band teacher told the class he would be retired around the time they graduated college and one of them could be his replacement. Eric fulfilled his teacher’s prophecy by accepting the position -- the one he still holds as band instructor at Richland County Middle School in Olney, where he can be seen offering free instruments to youngsters to entice participation in the band program.

Eric feels his unconventional approach to teaching band, which is tailored around the needs of each individual student, is the reason for the success of the program. He has developed his own spreadsheets to facilitate tracking individual student progress and encourages his students to practice only when they want, as opposed to forcing a prescribed amount of time. His approach to teaching, coupled with assisting other band educators in developing their own curricula, is helping Eric meet his goal of advancing the profession beyond where it was when he first started.​​​​​

 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Susan Converse is a former journalist turned special education teacher. Susan has worked in the field of edu​cation for the past 23 years. She began her teaching career in 1995 and has taught at the elementary, middle school and high school level. She has served students with emotional disabilities, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and autism. Susan is certified as a reading specialist and holds a master’s degree in educational administration. She served as an administrator for nine years before returning to the classroom in 2013.

Susan currently works at Edwardsville High School teaching students with intellectual disabilities and autism and assisting them with their transition needs as they prepare to exit the school system.​ Susan opened a coffee shop at her high school in 2016, which serves as a self-supported vocational training center for her students. The Tiger Den Coffee Shop has served as a stepping stone to competitive employment for her students and several of her students are now employed in the community. The support and success of the coffee shop has also allowed her students to support individuals in need within the school district and community. Over the past two years, the Tiger Den Coffee Shop has donated more than $10,000 to local families in need and has supported community initiatives which promote inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Susan hopes to expand this vocational initiative by opening a similar establishment in the community in the near future.​

 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Lindsey Jensen Lindsey Jensen came into the teaching profession via an indirect route. She took a job as a teacher’s aide in a junior high behavioral disorder classroom. Part of the reason the students were not in a “regular” classroom was their inability to communicate and socialize appropriately with their classmates. Lindsey says that she heard a few expletives that she had never heard before. She realized by the end of the first day that although this job was certainly “no walk in the park,” she loved it.

This experience became the catalyst for her falling in love with the teaching environment. She decided to pursue a degree in speech communication. Lindsey graduated from college with high honors in 2005 and immediately enrolled in a master’s program and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching. She has worked in a variety of educational settings. She was hired 10 years ago as an 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher at Dwight Township High School in Dwight Public School District 230.

Lindsey is concerned not only about her students’ academic success; she lets her students know that she cares about their emotional and social well-being.  Students relate to her bubbly personality, her warmth, and her enthusiasm for teaching and learning. One her students said that “Mrs. Jensen constantly radiates positivity. Her happiness is infectious.” Lindsey never gives up on a student and she will do anything she can to help students with schoolwork and personal issues. She is a teacher, a confidante, a mentor, and a role model. Students and staff alike look up to her and value her opinions, her thoughts, and her teaching.

Lindsey’s boundless enthusiasm for learning -- she is currently finishing work on a doctorate degree -- is evident in the work she and a colleague have been doing to redesign the 9-12 English curriculum. Her colleague says that “… Lindsey is so motivated to collaborate in producing a rigorous, well-aligned, skill-based, scaffolded curriculum that fosters practical student learning. She thrives on collaboration and, despite her confidence, has no ego.”

She inspires colleagues and students alike. Lindsey uses a variety of strategies to meet the varying needs of her students and she makes learning fun. She is flexible in her lessons to ensure that students really get it rather than just moving on because she has to meet a deadline. Lindsey gets excited about whatever she is teaching and that excitement transfers to her students. She is committed to building relationships with her students. 

Lindsey builds relationships with her students and inspires all those around her by being involved with extracurricular activities like directing the Drama Club, coaching cheerleading, directing the spring musical, and coordinating the polar plunge team, to name a few. Lindsey is most proud of her ability to capitalize on her role as DTHS Student Council adviser to influence student involvement in Special Olympics.

Lindsey is almost done with her doctoral work, but she says she doesn’t intend to leave her classroom. She said she promised herself she would use what she learned while working on her doctorate to help her become a better teacher and she believes the experience has done just that. The school’s principal sums it up with these words, “In my 30 years as an educator, I have never met a teacher who has matched the levels of enthusiasm and professionalism that Lindsey brings with her every day.”​​

 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Ricardo "Ricky" Castro - 2016 Illinois Teacher of the Year

Ricardo (Ricky) Castro talks openly about his involvement with gangs as a young teen in Chicago. He freely admits he was a bad student on the verge of choosing an entirely different path in life. Ricky credits caring teachers who listened and encouraged him through those difficult years, with helping him make decisions that positively influenced him and the path he ultimately chose to take. Ricky’s parents were immigrants, and there wasn’t much money. His early experiences with school were tainted by negative stereotypes but, as he says, “having teachers that cared and challenged me, I learned how to commit to serious study and ask for assistance.” Those invaluable experiences were instrumental in his decision to become a teacher.

Ricky has now been a teacher for 10 years. He has been teaching English as a second language, English Arts, and Spanish for the past 3 years at Elk Grove High School in Township High School District 214. He puts a strong emphasis on helping his students develop what he calls biliteracy. His belief is that by helping students develop a proficiency in multiple languages, they are gaining skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. Under Ricky’s careful guidance, and his collaboration with colleagues, 80% of Elk Grove’s 9th grade Latino English Language Learners qualified to move into “mainstream” courses in just one year! He also teaches students about the importance of serving their community and its people.  

Recognizing that students of poverty often need more than academic success to achieve success in life, Castro created a tiered leadership program called Estudiantes Unidos. This innovative program challenges Elk Grove High School students to mentor their junior high and elementary school counterparts. The program teaches the value of citizenship, and encourages students to be leaders. Today the co-curricular endeavor impacts more than 200 students in the district.

Ricky works tirelessly to create academic and leadership experiences for his students that truly transcend the confines of the current definition of education. A parent shared this about Ricky: “One of the most positive things that Mr. Castro has given my daughter is an unquenchable desire to be the best person that she to be. Mr. Castro has been teaching her to be a person of integrity, commitment, humility, and love. I am so glad that he teaches my daughter.”

Meet Ricardo "Ricky" Castro - 2017 Teacher of the Year(Video courtesy of High School District 214)​​

 Award Winners

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